Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Little Sister (Book) (1949)

I was inspired to read The Little Sister, by Raymond Chandler, after seeing the film Marlowe, which is based on it. The story in The Little Sister is told from the first-person point of view, that of Philip Marlowe, the famous private investigator. Orfamay Quest comes to Los Angeles from Manhattan, Kansas, to find her brother Orrin and hires Marlowe to help her. Orfamay Quest is not entirely forthcoming about her or her brother’s predicament: Orrin may or may not be involved in murder, blackmail, and misplaced family loyalty. But Marlowe figures it out by the end of the novel, and thus viewers do, too.

Saying more than that about the plot would give away too much, and The Little Sister should be enjoyed with as little preconception about the story as possible. For many, however, this is nearly impossible. Philip Marlowe has been around in literary circles since 1939, when Raymond Chandler wrote his first Marlowe novel and the private investigator got his start in pulp fiction. Since then, numerous radio shows, films, and television episodes have been based on the Marlowe novels.

I have not read all the Philip Marlowe novels, but Marlowe, as written by Chandler in The Little Sister, is not just a hard-boiled private investigator roughing up criminals. In fact, Marlowe is most often the recipient of or the witness to whatever violence occurs. The Little Sister doesn’t have much of it, in spite of the four or five murders that are part of the plot. Marlowe is a humorous, self-deprecating, poetic observer of his life and his profession.

Humorous, self-deprecating, and poetic are not the adjectives usually associated with detectives from the pulp fiction tradition. However, the novel has many humorous lines of dialogue and observations delivered by Philip Marlowe that show the private investigator is all three. To bolster my point, most of my blog post is going contain a lot of quotations. But you’ll still have plenty to enjoy if you should read the novel yourself. I read the novel twice. My only complaint about it is that it is too short!

(This blog post about the novel The Little Sister contains some spoilers.)

Here are some examples of Marlowe’s sense of humor:

The first occurs during his first phone conversation with Orfamay Quest, who eventually hires Marlowe to find her missing brother:

“I don’t think I’d care to employ a detective that uses liquor in any form. I don’t even approve of tobacco.”

                “Would it be all right if I peeled an orange?”

                I caught the sharp intake of breath at the far end of the line. “You might at least talk like a gentleman,” she said.

                “Better try the University Club,” I told her. “I heard they had a couple left over there, but I’m not sure they’ll let you handle them.” I hung up. (page 204)

In the following exchange, Philip Marlowe talks to George W. Hicks, who is staying in the room on Idaho Street in Bay City once occupied by Orfamay’s brother, Orrin Quest:

“He coulda went somewhere without telling me,” he mused.

                “Your grammar,” I said “is almost as loose as your toupee.”

                “You lay off my toupee, if you know what’s good for you,” he shouted.

                “I wasn’t going to eat it,” I said. “I’m not that hungry.” (page 225)

Philip Marlowe tells Orfamay Quest what he found on Idaho Street:

                She seated herself demurely and waited.

                “All I could find out,” I told her, “is that the dump on Idaho Street is peddling reefers. That’s marijuana cigarettes.”

                “Why, how disgusting,” she said.

                “We have to take the bad with the good in this life,” I said. (pages 230–231)

Philip Marlowe’s answer to amorous advances from Dolores Gonzalez:

“Just for half an hour,” I said. “let’s leave the sex to one side. It’s great stuff, like chocolate sundaes. But there comes a time you would rather cut your throat. I guess maybe I’d better cut mine.” (page 356)

Philip Marlow is also self-deprecating:

Marlowe after doing some inquires at the Van Nuys Hotel:

I nodded and went out. There are days like that. Everybody you meet is a dope. You begin to look at yourself in the glass and wonder. (page 240)

Marlowe after being drugged in Dr. Vincent Lagardie’s office and coming to:

I was looking at the ceiling, lying on my back on the floor, a position in which my calling has occasionally placed me. . . . (page 329)

Philip Marlowe refuses to help Dolores Gonzales with her blackmail plot:

She reached out the gauntleted hand across the desk. Her voice was cold. “Give it back to me, please.”

                “I’ll give it back to Mavis Weld. And I hate to tell you this, Miss Gonzales, but I’d never get anywhere as a blackmailer. I just don’t have the engaging personality.”

                “Give it back to me!” she said sharply. “If you do not—”

                She cut herself off. I waited for her to finish. A look of contempt showed on her smooth features.

                “Very well,” she said. “It is my mistake. I thought you were smart, I can see that you are just another dumb private eye. This shabby little office,” she waved a black gloved hand at it, “and the shabby little life that goes on here—they ought to tell me what sort of idiot you are.”

“They do,” I said. (page 340)

And Marlowe, private investigator, is poetically observant:

Marlowe is outside Mavis Weld’s apartment building:

. . . Across the way [on Doheny Drive] a guy in riding breeches was sprawled with his legs over the door of a low-cut Lancia. He was smoking and looking up at the pale stars which know enough to keep their distance from Hollywood. (page 257)

Philip Marlowe is present when Orrin P. Quest dies:

Something happened to his face and behind his face, the indefinable thing that happens in that always baffling and inscrutable moment, the smoothing out, the going back over the years to the age of innocence. The face now had a vague inner amusement, an almost roguish lift at the corners of the mouth. All of which was very silly, because I knew damn well, if I ever knew anything at all, that Orrin P. Quest had not been that kind of boy. (page 332)

Marlowe, the film based on the novel, follows the novel rather closely—but with enough changes to make a small difference in tone. It’s unusual for me to say this, but I enjoyed the film a bit more than the novel. It’s also unusual for me to say that I’m glad that I saw the film first. In this case, however, both are true. The film was updated for the year that it was released (1969), and quite a bit of the humor was unique to the film and to the time of its release, even though many lines of dialogue were taken from the novel. I said in my blog post about the film that the film’s contemporary reviewers didn’t like it all that much and that it was just as hard to follow as Raymond Chandler’s writing. Now that I have read the novel that the film is based on, I refuse to contribute to—or subscribe to—the myth that the plots of Raymond Chandler’s novels and the films based on them do not make much sense.

Click here for my blog post about Marlowe, the film based on Raymond Chandler’s novel The Little Sister.

I must admit, though, that I found a couple of minor plot holes after reading The Little Sister twice. For instance, the first time that the name Leila, which is linked to one of the main characters, is mentioned, it’s not clear how Marlowe knows who Leila is. Did he conduct a Quest family history or not? Chandler never states this clearly, but it’s hardly a major plot flaw. Readers can discern who Leila is without Chandler describing Marlowe’s investigation specifically.

Toward the end of the novel, Marlowe describes Orfamay Quest has returning to her original style of clothing and makeup. She arrived in Los Angeles from Manhattan, Kansas, looking a bit dowdy, supposedly altered her look while in Los Angeles, and then went back to looking a bit dowdy because she had every intention of returning to Manhattan, Kansas. I missed this transformation for Orfamay during my first reading of the novel. When I read The Little Sister the second time, I realized that Marlowe only imagined Orfamay Quest changing her clothes and hairstyle and wearing makeup. The way Orfamay presents herself is an important plot point, but nothing about her clothes, glasses, and makeup will prevent readers from understanding the plot.

The Little Sister is a fun read—I read it twice, just like I saw the film twice. I admit that the story, that is, Marlowe’s investigation, is a bit hard to follow, but it’s not impossible, as some film and book reviewers will have you believe. Chandler’s language and observations, as told through his character Philip Marlowe, are a real treat. Both the film and the novel were opportunities to lose myself in a great story.

Later Novels & Other Writings, by Raymond Chandler    New York: The Library of America, 1995    Chandler’s novel The Little Sister was originally published in 1949.

List of main characters:

Philip Marlowe, private investigator    Orfamay Quest, Marlowe’s client    Lester B. Clausen    George W. Hicks    Mavis Weld, film actress    Dolores Gonzalez, Mavis’s friend    Steelgrave, Mavis’s boyfriend    Detective Lieutenant Christy French    Detective Lieutenant Fred Beifus    Dr. Vincent Lagardie    Orrin P. Quest, Orfamay’s brother

The image of the front cover is from The Library of America anthology. The page references in this blog post refer to The Library of America publication listed above.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Five Steps to Danger (1957)

Five Steps to Danger reminded me of the films I used to watch on school day afternoons years ago, although I don’t remember seeing this film specifically. It was a lot of fun to see Sterling Hayden in a romantic role. He may appear in several films noir, but seeing him as a romantic lead in a film noir was a first for me. Five Steps to Danger is a rather complicated film: It’s part noir, part romance, part Cold War spy story, part road film. And it’s barely more than eighty minutes long.

The film starts with a car driving on a two-lane highway. The car crosses the solid line and drifts into the lane of oncoming traffic before viewers realize it is passing another car. Then the camera shows that the second car is being towed, with its driver still in the passenger seat. The camera shots make viewers anxious from the start about what could happen.

The man in the towed car, John Emmett, is taken to a gas station in Jefferson, California, where he decides to sell his car rather than wait one week for parts and repairs. The woman who passed him on the highway, Ann Nicholson, stops at the same gas station because her engine is overheating from a broken fan belt. Emmett takes his money from the mechanic who purchased his car and chats briefly with Nicholson because she mistakes him for a mechanic. Emmett was going to take a bus for the rest of his journey, but Nicholson offers to him a ride in her car if he is willing to share the driving. Emmett accepts Nicholson’s offer. She’s going as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico, and that’s fine with him.

Emmett is driving when they stop for gas later that night, about midnight. He goes into the Stage Coach diner at the roadside stop to get some coffee. A car pulls into the far end of the parking lot, and a blonde woman gets out and follows Emmett into the diner. Nicholson sees her and is alarmed. Inside the diner, the blonde introduces herself as Bethke, a nurse caring for Nicholson, who she says has had a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t want to talk to Nicholson because Nicholson’s doctor thinks she should be out and independent, but Bethke wants Emmett to call her at the Estes Hotel when he and Nicholson arrive in Santa Fe.

John Emmett thinks all of this is rather odd. He refuses to take any money from Bethke, who also mentions that Nicholson is a wealthy widow. Back in the car, Nicholson confronts Emmett about Bethke. He admits to talking to her, but he didn’t take any money when Bethke offered it. He says to Nicholson that he made a deal with her that he intends to keep his original deal with Nicholson.

The next day, Nicholson and Emmett are stopped on the highway by a sheriff and a deputy. They want to bring Nicholson back to Los Angeles, where she was living, because she is wanted for questioning in a murder. Nicholson maintains that she knows nothing about a murder and she puts up enough of a struggle that the deputy tumbles down the embankment at the side of the road. The sheriff handcuffs Nicholson and Emmett together, but Emmett isn’t happy about the sheriff’s rough manner. Another struggle ensues, and the sheriff joins the deputy at the bottom of the embankment. Nicholson and Emmett are still handcuffed together, but they take off anyway. Before they drive away, Emmett stops to take the officers’ keys from the ignition of their car.

After their getaway, Nicholson and Emmett drive off the main road for a talk. Nicholson still maintains that she knows nothing about murder, and Emmett demands an explanation. Nicholson finally admits that her family is German and that they were in Berlin during World War II. All of her family were killed, but then three months prior to her trip to Santa Fe, she heard that her brother Kurt might still be alive as a prisoner in East Germany.

In a flashback, Nicholson explains that she went back to Germany to see if she could find her brother and help him come to the United States. The U.S. consulate couldn’t help her, but through underground channels, she met Karl Plesser, who told her that Kurt never made it out of Stettin, the prison camp where he and Kurt were being held. Plesser got away, but Kurt was caught and killed. Karl and Kurt were working with Dr. Kissel, a family friend that Nicholson knew from her childhood. Plesser gave a steel mirror to Nicholson. The mirror is transcribed with Dr. Kissel’s notes about his research on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Nicholson is to find Dr. Kissel wherever his is in the United States and take the mirror to him. Plesser leaves and is shot dead on the stairway leading out of the apartment building where Nicholson had taken a short-term apartment. Back in the United States, Nicholson reads a newspaper article about Dr. Kissel, who is about to start a new position as the head of the physics department at Fairmont University in Santa Fe, and that’s why she is going to Santa Fe.

Emmett is already falling for Ann Nicholson, and her explanation satisfies him. He also admits that he looks guilty now himself because he ran from the officers when Nicholson did. Their romance makes the film that much more enjoyable. With all the plot threads, the romance angle also keeps the film grounded because viewers still have to learn if Nicholson is telling the truth, who is the mysterious Dr. Kissel, who is spying on Nicholson, and why the steel mirror is at the center of so much international intrigue. In some ways, Five Steps to Danger is a typical film noir: individuals are drawn into danger and mystery through fate and circumstances over which they have no control.

(This blog post about Five Steps to Danger contains spoilers.)

As much as I enjoyed Five Steps to Danger, it still included examples of sexism that can be all too common for films made in the 1950s. For instance, Nicholson and Emmett inquire about Dr. Kissel at the home of William Brant, dean of Fairmont University. He has never heard of Dr. Kissel, and he is quick to point out that Ann Nicholson seems to be under a lot of stress and perhaps everything has become exaggerated in her mind. He doesn’t say so specifically, but it sounds like he’s accusing her of lying and/or being mentally unfit, even though she shows him a copy of the newspaper article about Dr. Kissel. Then he says that she may be having medical complications and should consult a physician. Emmett stands by her and takes charge; otherwise, she would simply be another hysterical woman to be dismissed by most of the male characters.

Another example is the scene in which Dr. Simmons, the doctor working on Nicholson’s case, is gaslighting Nicholson and her nurse, Helen Bethke. He wants to have Nicholson committed so that he can find out more about the information she is taking to Dr. Kissel. He wants Bethke to sign the commitment papers because he needs a witness and Nicholson doesn’t have any family. Bethke complies: Dr. Simmons is a man, a doctor, and her employer. When Nicholson overhears them talking, she confronts Dr. Simmons, but he uses her courage against her and tells her that she is merely being confrontational. In the 1950s, the messages in films were often that women better listen to the men because the men are the professionals, they are much more competent in general, and they are better able to control their emotions.

I wasn’t sure if Five Steps to Danger had plot holes or whether the writers assumed that viewers had enough background knowledge to understand the narrative without extra details. It’s hard to know because a lack of contemporary information is also like a lack of cultural knowledge: If you haven’t lived through the circumstances and/or the period, you often don’t know how much you are missing! But not all the missing information is the fault of viewers who happen to be living in the twenty-first century. For instance, no one ever mentions if Ann Nicholson ever got the fan belt in her car fixed, even though she and Emmett drive it to Santa Fe. Nicholson never mentions anything to the mechanic about going ahead with repairing the fan belt.

I also couldn’t figure out why Ann Nicholson wasn’t killed in Berlin when Plesser was killed in her apartment building. If spies were looking for information that was being smuggled out of Germany, they wouldn’t have needed her or Plesser. It would make sense that Plesser was killed simply because he was an escapee, but no one ever makes that clear.

The best example of a plot hole is the film’s title: I have no idea where the title Five Steps to Danger comes from, and I have tried to find out more about it online.

Five Steps to Danger is based on a novel, originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, by Donald Hamilton, which I have not read. From the little bit that I have read about it, I already imagine that the novel is darker than the film. The novel’s title is The Steel Mirror, which makes much more sense. Maybe the novel fills in all the plot holes.

I have to admit, however, that the plot holes and the inexplicable title didn’t bother me when I watched Five Steps to Danger. It was such fun to follow John Emmett (Sterling Hayden) and Ann Nicholson that I can forgive the implausible plot turns.

January 30, 1957, release date    Directed by Henry S. Kesler    Screenplay by Henry S. Kesler    Based on the novel The Steel Mirror by Donald Hamilton    Music by Paul Sawtell, Bert Shefter    Edited by Aaron Stell    Cinematography by Kenneth Peach

Ruth Roman as Ann Nicholson    Sterling Hayden as John Emmett    Werner Klemperer as Dr. Frederick Simmons    Richard Gaines as Dean Brant    Jeanne Cooper as Helen Bethke    Peter Hansen as Karl Plesser    Karl Ludwig Lindt as Dr. Reinhardt Kissel    John Mitchum as Bob, the deputy    John (Frederick) Merrick as the sheriff    Charles Davis as CIA agent Edward Manning Kirkpatrick    Ken Curtis as FBI Special Agent Jim Anderson

Distributed by United Artists    Produced by Henry S. Kesler Productions, Grand Productions Inc.